Brother JT, aka the enigmatic John Terlesky, has returned with a mind-palace of an album entitled Tornado Juice. TJ was recorded at Magic Door, a new studio in Montclair NJ, by Ray Ketchem, who produced the Original Sins' Bethlehem album in 1996. This was a departure for the Brother, who hadn't darkened the door of a real studio since 2007's Jelly Roll Gospel, preferring the freedom of recording at his band's practice space and overdubbing at home. "When I heard Ray was opening a new studio I had to try it out," he recounted in a recent interview. "Aside from his sick mic collection there's a comfort level with Ray I'm not sure I could find elsewhere. He knows music and he knows me, and I think that comes through in the tracks."
True to form, however, after recording the main band parts JT took the files home and overdubbed vocals and guitar leads to his heart's content onto his refurbished Dell laptop. "I wouldn't want to put anyone through that kind of obsessiveness, much less a friend. And I wanted to put my little stamp of grime on it."
A prolific writer, often inspired by the titular Tornado Juice (that's LSD, kids), JT records on average 40 songs a year before narrowing the selection for an album. Often, it is the lyrics that come first, fast and furious - excerpts from one of JT's many notebooks can be seen on the LP inner sleeve. "It could just be my subconscious going off, but these sessions really feel like a form of spirit channeling. I hear voices, all kinds of voices, and basically take down what they say. It might seem odd, but I feel like I'm giving these beings some kind of outlet. It's like having a collaborator, say, Bernie Taupin, only from another dimension and much scarier."
From the raw material of those pages the artist then honed the more decipherable passages into song lyrics, drawing musically from a bottomless well of influences: gutbucket blues to power pop, classic rock to garage-psych, even modern sources. "I listen to new stuff, and I noticed that the structure is usually really simple, like the same 4 chords, but slightly different melodies on the verses and choruses. Probably came out of hip hop and loops and stuff. I really can get behind that--love the songs you can play even when you're hammered."
An example of that might be "Ponin", which contains a whopping 5 chords total and spins a deceptively upbeat tale of freedoms gone awry. Amidst references to kettle chips, Betty and Veronica, and Tastee Freeze, JT depicts his lackadaisical, small-town existence and the trend towards 'all god's chillun...doin' what they want now', concluding, 'I'd stop it if I could but I'll be damned if I should know how.' "It starts out kinda fun and jokey," he acknowledged, "but it's a slightly sad song ultimately. Like being stuck going through the motions of life, without much meaning."
The Brother elaborated on the importance of that balance of humor and darkness in his writing. "I always liked that Randy Newman song "Political Science." On the surface it's funny, but there's a darker ring of truth to the impulse it suggests. And it still works today." An artist who has sustained critical acclaim for over 30 years (The Original Sins' Big Soul was released in 1987 and listed by the NY Times as one of the 10 best albums of that decade) while commercial success has eluded him, Brother JT appreciates the need for a sense of humor. "Oh, you gotta laugh, especially these days, if you're in this business. If I took all this too seriously I'd have been out of commission a long time ago." Still, the brass ring of 'making it' remains a definite spur to the creative process.
"It's like a quest to write this perfect song," he mused. "I don't ever get tired of it because I'm absorbing new influences all the time and feel like I'm getting better as I get older. Had I hit it big back in the day I don't think I'd be so motivated as I still am. And not even to get a hit, whatever that is these days. Just to make some music that is sort of deathless, classic. Like trying to bowl a perfect game or get a hole in one, only using a guitar."
A guitarist inspired by the 'rudimentary guys' or more specifically Lou Reed, Ron Asheton and Bo Diddley, JT plays a pelham blue Epiphone SG with an alnico whammy bar through a Blackstar Stage 40. Some favorite pedals for this intrepid psychonaut are Halifax wah-wah and Boss distortion and sometimes Roland RE-20 echo. While critics have referred to his playing as "miraculously distorted guitar... that'll rip your mind to shreds" *, JT demurs "I don't really enjoy playing guitar. I'd much rather be just a singer, like Mick Jagger or Tom Jones, but I just don't have the hips for it. And plus, who'd play guitar?"